The Monopoly of Life
How the board game translates to applications of individual incomes, cheating and inequality.
It is a Friday night and I find myself situated, amongst three of my friends, in a tense board game of Monopoly. We did not know how the night got around to Monopoly, or why a board game with a 4-hour playing time was our Friday night agenda. But alas, there we were, brewing up our portfolios of property in London. One thing we did know, however, were the rules of the game; the occasional chance or community chest card to switch things up, the double dice rolls so you roll again, buying every property you land on in the hopes you can build hotels and charge rent, as well as the occasional mishap you end up going to jail. As the game progressed and reached the 3rd hour of playing time, I couldn’t help but think about the applications it had in terms of my Social Context class. After covering various topics such as individual incomes & happiness, cheating and inequality, I realized that the game I was playing had a standardized approach to all themes, whilst integrating them into one medium that I call the Monopoly of Life.
The game of Monopoly was developed on the core belief that the society we live in is a capitalist society, and our main purpose in this society is to churn profit and become landowners, which, as far as history is concerned, has roots connected to the feudalist era where land ordered the distribution of wealth. The first patent of Monopoly was called ‘The Landowner’s Game,’ with the objective to show that rent enriched property owners and impoverished tenants. The implications of such social structures has been discussed heavily by philosophers, economists and people alike, in order to understand why the human psyche has resulted in such a creation. To that end, it is important to understand how a simplified version (i.e. Monopoly) of an intricate system (i.e. Capitalism) has multiple applications to the real world we live in today.
So, what does Monopoly have anything to do with incomes & happiness?
When one plays Monopoly, the accumulation of wealth and property is the route one takes to win the game. In that case, it highlights the self-interested nature of individuals and the happiness one could receive from winning the game. However, one must have a ‘higher income’ to be able to do so. In Kahneman’s report, there is a positive correlation between life satisfaction and higher incomes but increases in income have mainly found to have a transitionary effect on one’s life satisfaction. The focusing illusion plays an important role in his analysis, whereby we tend to over-exaggerate our subjective well-being by focusing on single factors (Kahneman 2006). The same can be found in a game of Monopoly. For example, one can receive a chance card that reduces their income or sends them to jail. This increases our tendency to overstate our temporary dissatisfaction, despite having solid grounds for receiving income or that any one player could have received the same outcome. However, as the game progresses, the “allocation of attention eventually changes,” as well-being measured from moment to moment shows a weaker correlation with income. In the board game, circumstances happen to change quickly and so this would be applicable. A reason Kahneman gives for this is that your relative income, rather than the level of income, affects well-being.
Your relative income in comparison to others measures & affects your ‘well-being’ in the game. If someone is taking your money from you in the form of rent or simply earning more than you, you experience a lower level of well-being. In Firebaugh’s Does Your Neighbor’s Income Affect Your Happiness?, he establishes that there is a direct correlation between living in a richer neighborhood and happiness. However, as the Easterlin Paradox suggests:
“Individuals are more likely to compare themselves to others whom they can observe and whom they consider to be equals.”
In a game of Monopoly, everyone starts off equal (I will discuss this role in-depth later) and your neighbors, in hindsight, are your friends. Each player is playing for the same objectives which we can consider as The American Dream (that is, to play by the rules, work hard and get rewarded for it). If you see your friend increase their income and purchase more property, generally you will feel worse-off than if you were in your friends’ position. This is where incomes and happiness play a substantial role, even in a board game like Monopoly. What’s even worse is when your friend happens to land on Mayfair.
Cheating: They’ll never catch me!
Monopoly also tends to invoke cheating at times, as do many board games, purely to avoid the possibility of losing money and the game itself. So much so that Hasbro decided to make a new edition of it called ‘Monopoly: Cheater’s Edition.’ A quick sleight of hand can find a person an extra $200 in their bank account, relieving their funds of any rent, tax or miscellaneous expense. In Mazar’s Dishonesty of Honest People, he says:
“People are dishonest only to the extent that the planned trade-off favors a particular action.”
In this case, the trade-off is between having more money in the account and the stealing of money itself. Mazar also goes on to mention:
“If people cheat, they could gain financially but at the expense of an honest self-concept.”
However, because it is a game where any one-person could cheat at a given time, it may not bear negatively on their self-concept. This is in part due to the categorization: people hypothesize that for certain types of actions and magnitudes of dishonesty, they can categorize their actions into more compatible terms and find rationalizations for their actions. Aspects of categorization include its malleability and limit. Malleability works here because it is easier to steal from the bank than to steal from your friends and so the player categorizes the action in terms that are compatible with friendship, therefore not requiring the player to “update their self-concept.”
In terms of limits, it is possible that you can get caught, resulting in an uproar from your friends at which point the person “can no longer avoid the obvious moral valence of their behavior.” Considering these characteristics, the cost-benefit model is solely to fuel an individuals’ external reward of winning a monopoly game with the most property and money at the end, without negatively harming their self-concept.
The same could be said about an example in Freakonomics:
Teachers helped their students ‘cheat’ on the exam. A reason for this conduct was the possible external benefit of getting a raise or teacher’s award in the near future.
(Levitt and Dubner 2005).
A question raised here is to what extent humans will go to cheat and reap the rewards? Whether it’s as simple as a board game or as complex as a flaw in the education system in the US, humans are inherently self-interested and may do whatever is possible within their moral limits to get ahead.
Equality: The dice decides the outcome, not me!
A game of Monopoly also represents equality fairly well for every player involved. Every player has equality of opportunity, income and rights to property. Opportunity because the die is fair, income because each player starts with $1500 and collects $200 as they pass go, and rights to property as you can purchase any property or utility you land on (as long as it is not owned by anyone else). This system may seem equal at first sight, but there is still a possibility of inequality to rise whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, fundamentals of a capitalist society. Also, the player that lands a combination of same-color property allows them to build homes and hotels to receive additional income if another player lands on it.
By pure luck, one can find themselves significantly more well-off than others. This ‘pure luck’ could also be said for anyone that is born into a rich family or a safe path to success, where one has absolutely no agency to decide the outcomes of their life before they are born. Another factor that sets precedent as the game progresses is greed, because you want to capture as much rent as you can through property ownership. In an article by The Washington Post about Emerald Cay-Paradise To The 1 Percent:
“Greed, and in particular the indulgence and sense entitlement that has become so endemic among those who, because of some combination of luck and skill, have risen to the top of the economic ladder.”
Notice the use of luck and skill. Skill becomes apparent in Monopoly because one must know how to operate effectively in the game to reap the most rewards. Therefore, all three dimensions of greed, skill and luck play not only an important role amongst the top 1%, but also amongst those that find themselves playing Monopoly on a Friday night. What a coincidence, don’t you think?
As the game reached its final few rounds, with one of my friends already declaring bankruptcy, I took a step back and holistically thought about the relevance of the board game to recent class discussions. How could a simple board game be so pertinent to such broad topics of income, cheating and inequality? I assumed it was designed that way based on how our society has progressed over time, and the systems that have become prevalent today. Also, if we cannot find a balance between income, happiness, equality & cheating in a board game, how possibly could we find it in real life? The truth is, we can’t. Every person has different definitions of happiness, self-concept and self-interest, given their circumstances and societal values. Deep in my thoughts, my friend nudges me on the shoulder and says:
“Hey, are you playing? I just went bankrupt and it’s between you and Adam now.”
“Of course!” I reply.
“Go on then, finish it off,” he says, proceeding to check his phone. With a quick sleight of hand, I manage to take out an extra $500 from the bank, roll the dice and build a hotel on Mayfair, purchasing it with the money I just stole.
“So much for all that reflection,” I think to myself, going on to win the game once Adam mortgaged off his last property to pay the rent on Mayfair.
Firebaugh, Glenn, and Matthew Schroeder. 2009. “Does Your Neighbor’s Income Affect Your Happiness?”. National Institute Of Health 115 (3): 805–831.
Kahneman, Daniel. 2006. “Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion”. Science Mag 312. doi:10.1126/science.1129688.
Levitt, Steven, and Stephen Dubner. 2005. Freakonomics. Harper-Collins.
Mazar, Nina, and On Amir. 2008. “The Dishonesty Of Honest People: A Theory Of Self-Concept Maintenance”. Journal Of Marketing Research 45: 633–644.
Pearlstein, Steven. 2015. “At Emerald Cay — Paradise To The 1 Percent — At The Glimmering Edge Of Good Sense”. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/caribbean-paradises-beauty-obscures-ugly-truth-about-capitalism--greed-isnt-good/2015/01/23/68ff20cc-a196-11e4-9f89-561284a573f8_story.html.